Higher Extensions, Lower Risk

December 27, 2015

Is there a safe way to get the extreme flexibility needed for a professional dance career?

Photo by Nathan Sayers

Working on your flexibility can be frustrating. The popular rhetoric about gentle, gradual stretching doesn’t seem to match what’s required to make it in this career. Being overly cautious will do little more than maintain the flexibility you already have. But forcefully kicking into extreme extensions before your body is ready is obviously dangerous.

Somewhere in between, there is a real-world way to increase your range of motion. “The level of flexibility you see from professionals is a realistic goal for most dancers, and it can be achieved without risking injury,” says Meredith Butulis, a doctor of physical therapy who has treated the Rockettes and the Broadway cast of
The Lion King
. It requires getting specific about when, how and how often you stretch, knowing which muscles are your problem areas and, at times, calling in a physical therapist for extra help.

Stretch More Often

The muscle groups dancers usually want to lengthen are the hamstrings, hip flexors, quads, inner thighs, calves and hip rotators. Jennifer Green, founder of PhysioArts in New York City, suggests increasing the frequency of stretch sessions that focus on your personal trouble spots. “If you stretch for an hour a day and allow 23 hours to pass without working those muscles again, you’re not going to improve,” she says. “Stretching for short sessions multiple times a day means the muscles don’t have a chance to tighten back up.” Three to six days a week, stretch your tightest muscles five times throughout the day, holding each stretch for 30 seconds. But don’t push looser muscles to the extreme. “You might already have a deep plié, so you only have to stretch your calves after class, but you could work your hamstrings and quads more frequently.”

Be Intentional

Your approach to stretching is just as important as how often you do it. “If the only time you stretch is while you talk with friends before class, you won’t see results,” says Chris Frederick, a dance physical therapist and co-director of the Stretch to Win Institute. “You can’t just wait around in static positions for your muscles to lengthen. In fact, studies show that sitting in a stretch for longer than 30 seconds actually weakens your muscles.”

Dynamic stretching, where you engage the muscles while actively moving through your range of motion, is more likely to prepare your body to dance. “Your muscles will be more available to you than if you sit and elongate the muscles so much that they’re tired,” says Green. Think loose battements or yoga flow: “Move through a lunge to a downward dog, then lift one foot directly behind you, flex it, and step through to another lunge,” suggests Butulis. “Just never stop moving.”

If you’re naturally stiff, add foam rolling to the mix. It sends blood flow to knots and signals the nervous system to help muscles relax. “If you have tight hamstrings, you need to know that there are actually three muscles working together there and you can’t go about stretching them in a linear way. Usually, the outer muscle is the hang-up,” says Butulis. “After you’re warm, work a foam roller or lacrosse ball down the full length of the outer hamstring, and hold in tight spots—you’ll feel them—for about 30 seconds. Then roll the whole muscle set for four to five minutes before you move on to dynamic stretches.” Add some static stretches after class, when you’re already warm and ripe for the lengthening effects, letting the muscles relax. Butulis believes that with this combination, you’ll start to feel a difference right away and continue to see measurable improvement over time.

Go Easy

If all this still sounds pretty gentle to you, you’re right—low impact
done right
will get results. “A little goes a long way with stretches,” says Frederick. “You can’t crank them. When a muscle doesn’t let go as you stretch, it’s a sign that it is protecting itself, so if you force it you’re risking injury.” Same thing goes if a partner stretch pushes you too far—Butulis points out that it only takes a pound of pressure from a partner to give you a deeper stretch. “Gentle pressure can activate sensors that allow the muscles to contract and relax,” she says. “However, if you use excessive force or move the limb too quickly, the sensors will react to protect the muscle by tightening, preventing the stretch.”

Get Help

Some dancers may not be able to fully overcome muscle stiffness through stretching alone. For example, Green warns that extremely tight hamstrings may indicate the medial and lateral muscles have actually adhered to each other. “You’ll need soft-tissue mobilization to break up tissue fluids, release tension and inspire some play between the two muscles,” she says. “Only a trained massage therapist or physical therapist can effectively do that.”

Identify the areas where you’d like to improve and track your progress, but remember that extreme flexibility isn’t the only attribute of a great dancer. “You don’t just need a flat split to do a split in the air—that also takes timing, motor skills, hip strength, leg strength and control,” says Butulis. “That understanding is just as critical as great range of motion, and no amount of stretching alone will unlock all the possibilities of what your body can do.” 

What Are the Most Dangerous Stretching Mistakes?

“Sitting in a split between two chairs, with the crotch dropping down between. Over time this is weakening your ligaments and putting strain on your joints.” —
Chris Frederick

“Doing a bunch of straddle-throughs before you’re warm, or using momentum or gravity to get into an extreme place can lead to cartilage damage, surgery or even total hip replacement.” —
Jennifer Green

“The frog stretch, where you’re face down on your stomach with your legs in a diamond, could actually be creating an unstable hip socket, rather than more flexibility.”

Meredith Butulis

When to Back Off

“If you feel a
, like your whole calf is stretched taut, that’s okay. If you feel a painful spot, like in your kneecap or hip socket, it may indicate you’re tugging at a joint or there’s scar tissue, so ease up.”

Meredith Butulis